13:40, November 20 64 0 abajournal.com

2017-11-20 13:40:05
Law firm billed criminal defendants for prosecution fees; building-code violation brings $31K bill

Building-code violators in two California municipalities are being billed for their own criminal prosecutions after the cities hired a law firm and authorized it to bill defendants for its prosecution services.

The towns of Coachella and Indio hired the law firm Silver & Wright, which bills not only for its prosecutions but also for the costs incurred in appeals, the Desert Sun reports.

The law firm has filed criminal prosecutions for offenses such as overgrown weeds, building without a permit, and junk-filled yards, according to the article. If the bill isn’t paid, a lien is filed against the property, which can be sold at auction to recover the money.

The criminal prosecutions are filed after the property owner fails to resolve at least one warning or citation. Most cities take such cases to civil rather than criminal court, where a judge must approve attorney fees, the article reports.

The Desert Sun found Coachella and Indio had charged $122,000 in “prosecution fees” in 18 cases since hiring the law firm a few years ago. The price tag increased to $200,000 with appeal fees and additional costs such as code-enforcement and abatement fees.

The cases include:

• A man who expanded his living room without a permit, with the goal of running a day care center, agreed to pay a $900 fine and bring his house up to code. Silver & Wright billed him $26,000 and increased the amount to $31,000 after an appeal.

• A family with a broken garage and an overgrown yard filled with trash and junk was billed $18,500 for the prosecution. The amount rose to $25,200 after an appeal.

• A woman who strung a Halloween decoration across the street in front of her home was billed $2,700 for the prosecution. The amount rose to $4,200 after an appeal. An administrative hearing officer tossed the legal bill.

Silver & Wright did not comment when contacted by the Desert Sun. Officials with Coachella and Indio told the newspaper that the criminal cases were filed against the least cooperative property owners.